The Head of Joseph Conrad

Not so long ago I found myself in the awful position of having nothing to read – a state of near despair I can remember encountering long ago in childhood and intermittently ever since. It wasn’t that there weren’t unread books lying around the flat, there were, but none of them held any interest for me. I paced the three main rooms, scanning the bookshelves, in a state of mounting desperation . . . until my eye fell upon three small blue hardbacks that I bought in a second hand bookshop in lower George Street years ago with the money a friend insisted on giving me after I helped her move house. They are from the Collected Edition of the Works of Joseph Conrad published by J M Dent in 1946; and the one I chose to re-read is called The Mirror of the Sea and A Personal Record. They are both more or less autobiographical, the one composed, partly by dictation to Ford Madox Ford, in the early noughties and published in 1906, the other written half a decade later and first published in 1912. Re-reading them made me want, again, to find a decent biography of Conrad so, before I went away on my trip to Adelaide and the Alice, I searched through the local libraries for one; but found nothing of interest. However, within an hour of being in ‘laide, in a second hand bookshop down Hindley Street, I found and bought : Joseph Conrad – A biography, by Jeffrey Meyers (John Murray, 1991) and it became my recreational reading for the rest of that trip; I finished it as the plane flew across Lake Eyre on the way back to Sydney. And is it ‘decent’? Alas, no . . . competent, perhaps, most likely reliable as to the information it contains (the author, an American academic, boasts that he has visited every place where Conrad lived and travelled); readable even; but lamentable, even derisory, in its assessment of the man. There is a school of biography which might be call counter-hagiographic; where the intent of the biographer, unadmitted as it may be, is to go out and drag the man or woman down; in which resentment is the chief, perhaps only motivation; and Mr Meyers is a deft exponent of it. I grew weary of his many reiterations of Conrad’s neurosis, his neuralgia, his poor spoken English, his (presumed) lack of sexual experience, his unfortunate marriage, his disastrous holidays, his gout . . . nothing, it seemed, that could diminish the man escaped Mr Meyers’ scrutiny; while he admits only grudgingly anything that might augment the nobility of soul we encounter on every single page of Conrad’s works; the beautiful tribute to Jessie Conrad that appears in A Personal Record is omitted altogether. Of course I blame myself : the impulse to read biography is often prurient and Meyers’ book is, at base, an appeal to prurience. He bangs on at great length, for instance, about an affair he alleges to have uncovered between Conrad and a much younger American woman, a journalist called Jane Anderson; but for the life of me I could not see that he had shown anything other than that she lived in the Conrad house for a couple of months while ill and that both Jessie and Joseph (who had only sons) became fond of her. I suppose it will remain a useful reference as I wander through the tales of deep and shallow seas; but even here, in its truncated summaries of the plots of these, unaccountable errors appear : as if Meyers obtained his information, not from the works themselves, but from one of those cribs that are churned out for undergraduates to read before examinations. Once upon a time, perhaps twenty years ago (i.e. around about the time this book was published) I had a dream in which I visited Joseph Conrad. Strange though it may seem, it appears to me that I learned more from that encounter than I did from all the facts, figments, suppositions, allegations and whatnot that are contained in this bio . . . as if dream knowledge, which is by definition illusory, nevertheless has an authenticity that sober documentary somehow lacks.

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One response to “The Head of Joseph Conrad

  1. Rick

    “Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems I am trying to tell you a dream–making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams…no, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream–alone…” from Heart of Darkness

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